BAGHDAD (AP) – A suicide car bomber struck outside a cafe in a tiny Kurdish village near the Iranian border Friday, killing 26 people in a remote part of a province where U.S. forces are waging an offensive against Sunni insurgents, police said.

The blast ripped through the coffee shop near a market of Iranian goods in the village of Ahmad Maref, 87 miles northeast of Baghdad, said an official at the joint security coordination committee of Diyala province. At least 33 people were wounded, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The village is home to about 30 Kurdish families who had been expelled under Saddam Hussein’s rule and returned after his fall. Many Kurds in the area are Shiite Muslims.

The village lies in the remote end of Diyala, a province where U.S. forces have been waging two offensives since mid-June, one focusing on Baqouba, Diyala’s capital northeast of Baghdad, the other on Salman Pak, a region southeast of the capital. The sweeps aim to close off an escape route for insurgents fleeing a security crackdown in Baghdad and to uproot al-Qaida militants and other fighters who use the region as a staging ground for attacks in the capital.

Although violence appears to have eased somewhat in Baghdad in past months as U.S. forces stepped up security operations, Diyala has continued to see heavy attacks.

An alleged al-Qaida militant, meanwhile, was executed for his role in one of Iraq’s first major bombings, an August 2003 blast that killed a Shiite leader and 84 other people and foreshadowed the four-year insurgency that followed, a Justice Ministry official said Friday.

Oras Mohammed Abdul-Aziz was hanged Tuesday in Baghdad after being sentenced to death in October, Ministry Undersecretary Busho Ibrahim told The Associated Press.

The execution announcement was the first word that a suspect had been tried in the killing of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack – a huge car bomb that went off outside the Shrine of Ali in Najaf, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites, and killed al-Hakim.

Al-Hakim was the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and was poised to become a major figure in Iraqi politics following Saddam’s fall. His brother, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, now heads the group, the largest Shiite party in parliament.

Ibrahim said Abdul-Aziz, from the northern city of Mosul, was affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq and confessed to other attacks, including the 2004 killing of Abdel-Zahraa Othman, the president of the Governing Council, the U.S.-appointed body that ran Iraq following Saddam’s ouster.

Also Friday, the military said a U.S. soldier died of wounds sustained in combat Thursday in western Baghdad. With his death, at least 3,592 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.

A church leader said gunmen waylaid a minibus outside the northern city of Kirkuk and seized four Christian men. Rt. Rev. Louis Saka, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop in Kirkuk, said a 21-year-old Christian woman was on the bus when it was stopped south of the city Thursday but was released by the captors, who are demanding a $40,000 ransom.

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes since the 2003 invasion because of threats by Islamic extremists and criminal gangs.

AP-ES-07-06-07 1825EDT